New research suggests that while people feel empathy for someone in distress, they only tend to provide assistance if they perceive the needy person is a member of their own “in-group.”

The findings, presented in the July issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, discuss two different studies – an actual intercultural setting and then a mixture of people with gender as the only obvious difference.

The research, led by Stefan Stürmer of the University of Kiel, is presented in the article “Empathy-Motivated Helping: The Moderating Role of Group Membership.”

The first study, using a real-world intercultural scenario, split German and Muslim male participants into culturally-defined groups. When everyone learned that another participant was having difficulty finding housing, they all felt empathy for the other regardless of what group they were in. However, when asked about their intentions to help the participant, empathy had a stronger impact when the other was categorized as a member of their in-group.

To further substantiate the findings from the first study, the second study created “minimal” in-groups and out-groups using a mixture of male and female participants without obvious cultural differences. As in the first study, when participants learned that another participant needed financial help due to the loss of money and a credit card, they all felt empathy, but actual assistance was provided only when the distressed person was a member of their in-group.

Source: SAGE Publications